Untimely Movie Review: The Shining

The genius of Stanley Kubrick is readily apparent in the opening “segment” of The Shining, in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) painstakingly drives to, arrives at, and participates in an almost-real-time job interview.

The exquisitely slow burn takes the audience through an experience so familiar that it is almost mundane, up until the point where Mr. Ullman asks whether Jack knows about the “tragedy of 1970.”

Between this and “Tony,” Danny Torrance’s imaginary friend, it doesn’t take long for the viewer to understand that something incredibly sinister is at work.  But it is the path that Kubrick uses to get there that is so fascinating.

The Shining incorporates a few pieces we’ve seen before in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection.  Namely, Kubrick (2001 and A Clockwork Orange), Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Scatman Crothers (also Cuckoo’s Nest).  All three work superbly.

So, too, does Shelley Duvall, as Jack’s harrowed wife who was already close to a breakdown even before her husband began chasing her around with an axe.

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Father’s Day (Redux 2020)

It was.

It’s Father’s Day again, and continuing with what is now an annual tradition, I’m taking this opportunity to share a Father’s-Day-related storytelling podcast I recorded back in 2016.

Happy Father’s Day.

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Halfway Home

I purchased the Warner Brothers 90th Anniversary blu-ray Collection over six years ago.  It took me quite a while, but, as I’ve been on a pandemic-fueled review flurry of late, I’ve finally been able to finish the first half of the collection.

This obviously means that I’ve reviewed 25 of the 50 films, which takes us up through the end of the 1970s.  Here’s the complete list, with links to all of the completed reviews (and the list of the movies yet to come).

The films that won Best Picture are in bold.

Grand Hotel (1932)
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Gone with The Wind (1939)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Casablanca (1943)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
An American in Paris (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Gigi (1958)
North By Northwest (1959)
Ben-Hur (1959)
How the West Was Won (1962)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Bullitt (1968)
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Dirty Harry (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1972)
The Exorcist (1973)
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Superman: The Movie (1978)
The Shining (1980)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Risky Business (1983)
Amadeus (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Goodfellas (1990)
Unforgiven (1992)
The Bodyguard (1992)
Natural Born Killers (Director’s Cut) (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Matrix (1999)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2005)
The Departed (2006)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Blind Side (2009)
The Hangover (2009)
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Inception (2010)

There’s still a good mix of movies I haven’t seen and ones that I have seen (and like) coming up.  At the rate I’m going, I see no reason why I can’t finish the rest of these within a year.  Perhaps sooner.

The biggest obstacle at this point is the fact that I’m also watching a lot of other movies.  For example, I picked up The Pink Panther Collection, along with The Thing (I had it on DVD but not blu-ray), Richard Jewell, Straight Outta ComptonSolo (upgraded to 4k), Parasite, and A Fish Called Wanda.

Hey, I had to use that Trump stimulus money somehow.

But I’m watching three to seven movies a week at this point, so I should be able to keep up my pace.  I’ll be back soon with more untimely reviews!

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Untimely Movie Review: Superman

Approaching the turn in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, I encounter a familiar face: Superman.

I’m too young to have seen the 1978 movie in a theater, but I’m the perfect age to have experienced the film’s frequent showing as a network Movie of the Week, and, later, as a cable channel staple.

At least until 1989’s Batman, this movie was the definitive superhero film.  Prior to Superman, comic-book heroes had been relegated to camp or b-movie fodder.  Superman made it clear that this genre could be both creatively successful and commercially viable—to say the least.  Superman made over $300,000,000 at the box office, including international receipts, which is close to  $1.2 billion in current-day dollars—comparable to the modern MCU blockbusters.

I’ve always loved the fact that they begin the movie with a 4:3, black-and-white nod to Superman’s 1930s origins.  That was a nice touch.  And, as the (incredibly lengthy!) opening credits begin, I, like a lot of people my age, have an almost visceral reaction to that John Williams theme.  And it’s worth mentioning that Williams’ music is almost as big a star in this movie as Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, or Marlon Brando.

Speaking of Brando, two quick points: 1. The collection includes the extended version, so this is the two-and-a-half-hour edition of the film, complete with extra Brando.  2. I always forget that the story and original screenplay for this movie came from the mind of Mario Puzo!

Anyway, the first portion of the film is very practical-effects-heavy.  It not only looks primitive by modern standards, but even against the lofty bar set by Star Wars a year earlier.  It isn’t awful or anything, but, for example, it’s easy to tell the scale models are models, and certain other telltale signs of movie-making take the viewer out of the immersive experience.

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Buy Physical Media

A generous helping of shutdown-induced free time has allowed me to catch up on my ridiculous backlog of movies on disc.  That’s why it’s no coincidence that the last dozen or so posts on this formerly eclectic blog are movie reviews.

Note “movies on disc.”  I think it’s safe to say that I don’t personally know anyone who owns as many movies as I do in a physical form.  I also own a healthy number of television shows on disc, as well as myriad sports-related selections.  In all, I would estimate that I have something like 2,000 discs worth of content, all of which I keep in simple albums for the sake of efficient storage, allowing all of this material to occupy only two small shelves on a bookcase in my den.

Why do I own so many discs in an era in which streaming is now the preferred format?

Several reasons.  First, audio and video quality is typically better.  A blu-ray disc can hold enough data to produce higher video quality than what you’ll normally get on a streaming service, as well as uncompressed audio.

Secondly, it’s never been a better time to be a physical media fan.  With streaming services exploding in popularity, discs are in decline.  Demand is lower, especially after the initial wave of fans buy the produce the first month the movie is out, so prices drop quickly.  

Disney aside, even new-release discs drop below $20 pretty quickly.  Even better, popular titles from yesteryear often get bundled together at incredible discounts.  To name just one example, The Jack Ryan Collection, which includes five Tom Clancy blockbusters, can be had for $19.99 on Amazon right now.

I’m fairly indifferent to those movies, but, at $4.00 each, I’m considering making a purchase.

Those are the pragmatic reasons I buy physical media.  But there’s a third, increasingly important one. Continue reading

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Untimely Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the third film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection that revolves around a central struggle of the individual against institutionalization.

Like Cool Hand Luke and A Clockwork OrangeOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest centers around an anti-hero, R. P. McMurphy, played by the incomparable Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning performance.  McMurphy’s moral alignment is somewhere between that of the roguish Luke Jackson and the sociopathic Alex DeLarge, but his immense charisma is every bit as potent as theirs.

One of the most important elements of this film is that some of the early scenes are intentionally dull, in order to highlight the soul-destroying drudgery of the mental hospital.  As McMurphy becomes more vocal, the scenes get far more lively, but his energy contrasts with the void of the defeated, morose, long-term patients.

Gradually, we get some of the Christ-like themes that were so prominent in Cool Hand Luke, as McMurphy pushes back against a system that robs the patients of their humanity.  The difference is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, who is a much more nuanced character than the one-dimensional “Man with No Eyes” from Cool Hand Luke.

Nurse Ratched genuinely believes that she’s doing what’s best for these patients, and it’s only when she begins to lose control of them in the presence of new alpha McMurphy that her own fragility and human weaknesses become obvious.

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Untimely Movie Review: The Exorcist

The Exorcist provides another example of a cultural touchstone film that, somehow, I’ve never seen.

That’s right—despite owning about 500 movies on disc, and seeing perhaps hundreds more over the years, this one escaped my view.  This is the next in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, and, based on the title screen, it’s the extended director’s cut.  Not that I would know the difference.

One of the benefits of coming in fresh is being surprised by things, such as the film beginning in Iraq!  I had also forgotten it takes place in Georgetown, right up the road from me.  I was totally unaware that Regan’s (Linda Blair’s) mother, Chris (played by Ellen Burstyn), is an actress in a film-within-the-film.

I also didn’t realize that doctors were prescribing Ritalin back in ’73, but the movie nails the “we’re not sure what it is—here’s some mind-altering drugs, I guess?” mentality.  The doctors continue to fumble through diagnoses, even when coming face-to-face with Regan’s bizarre behavior.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be exactly correct to say that this film “hasn’t aged well.”  It’s fine.  It doesn’t seem all that dated in most respects.

However, there is one key problem related to its age.

This film still has some shock value viewed with the perspective of a first-time viewer in 2020.  But, first, shock value doesn’t do much for me, and, secondly, even if it did, the potency of it has dissipated considerably since 1973.

Seeing a little girl’s head turn all the way around, or hearing her speaking in strange voices, or seeing her projectile vomit is certainly creepy.  But, to the jaded, cynical, world-weary contemporary audience (i.e. me) it isn’t particularly scary or compelling.

The only parts that are a little gut-wrenching are the arteriogram (genuinely the most uncomfortable scene) and the, uh, cross insertion scene (mostly thinking about the awkward conversation that must have preceded the filming of it).

Otherwise, it’s just a pretty taut thriller with an excellent Max von Sydow performance (playing 30 years older than he was due to some excellent makeup), a jaw-dropping Linda Blair performance, a few weird edits, a minor loose end or two, and a couple of decent jump scares.  And it ends with the lesson that the exorcism doesn’t actually work until you just beat the demon out of the person!

It’s solid overall, but not among the best in this collection.

However, the behind-the-scenes documentary is downright fascinating.  The Exorcist would be worth a watch in any case, but it’s absolutely must viewing purely as a preamble to the bonkers doc, which features, among other things, Friedkin talking with (disturbing) glee about how he got then-twelve-year-old Linda Blair to do some of the more gross or adult scenes using techniques like tickling her until she agreed.  Yikes all around!

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Untimely Movie Review: A Clockwork Orange

The next entry in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection is the second Stanley Kubrick offering in the set: A Clockwork Orange.  Yet, despite the unmistakably ambitious nature of the film, I found it had more in common thematically with the non-Kubrick Cool Hand Luke than it did 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Cool Hand Luke is, on one level, a backward-looking but contemporary analysis of the nature of prisons and rehabilitation—posing the question of whether penal institutions do more harm than good from the perspective of that rehabilitation.

Likewise, A Clockwork Orange is, among other things, a commentary on rehabilitation, and whether a cure can be worse than the “disease” of inherent sociopathy.  In particular, it ponders whether aversion therapy of the kind depicted in the film (even when—no, especially when—effective) is moral.  The story mulls this question both in terms of a denial of free will (the prison clergyman makes this part abundantly clear), but also from the perspective of whether the government can be trusted to wield this power in the first place.

We get hints of this idea throughout, with throwaway lines about political prisoners and so forth serving to underscore that the dystopian nature of A Clockwork Orange’s setting extends beyond violence and chaos and into the well-worn ground of soul-crushing totalitarianism.

In the midst of that, there’s Malcolm McDowell’s Alex, a charismatic sociopath who slips easily from setting to setting, behaving in whatever manner has the greatest chance of producing the outcome that will service his depravity.  He maneuvers through a society steeped in hedonism and violent crime carried out by gangs of youth speaking in a bizarre type of future slang anchored in pigeon-Russian and Cockney rhymes, and McDowell plays him with transcendent precision every step of the way.

In Kubrick’s uniquely skilled hands, the movie becomes a visual and auditory masterpiece, akin to, but very different from, 2001.  His deft use of a classical score, paired with futuristic Moog synth music, is brilliant.  Also memorable is the use of slow-motion and fast-motion, the artistic value of which in Clockwork Orange is apparent even to a layman like myself.

Like many of the other films in this collection, Clockwork Orange is also based on a book.  One thing I loved about this movie, though, is that it avoids the pitfall into which so many other novel-to-film translations stumble: it feels neither rushed nor as if it’s “missing” critical elements.  Kubrick is able to manage the pace and density of the story perfectly.

The irony is that Kubrick, who also wrote the screenplay, based his script on the American edition of the Anthony Burgess book.  That meant that version Kubrick read omitted the final, redemptive chapter (and we don’t see it reflected onscreen).

Yet, that doesn’t seem to matter.  The strange, acrobatically stylized violence of the world Kubrick creates is perfectly illustrated, and Alex’s resilient and ultimately victorious trajectory soars and dips before the viewer’s eyes in a way that is as satisfying as it is, at times, disturbing.

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Untimely Movie Review: Dirty Harry

Going from Willy Wonka to Dirty Harry practically gave me the bends.

But Clint Eastwood’s signature performance was next up in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection.  Like Bullitt, this is a movie about police officers in San Francisco.  Unlike Bullitt, this is a much more in-your-face, blood-and-guts cop flick, complete with wildly unrealistic criminal and procedural scenarios.

If you’re looking for nuance, this isn’t the movie for you.

The movie pits Eastwood’s gruff, rogue Callahan up against Andy Robinson’s “Scorpio,” a wild-haired, wilder-eyed cartoon character of a serial killer.

This is one of those examples of a movie that works better if you turn your brain off.  Well, maybe not off, but at least down.

The film, and Eastwood’s character, serves as a counter-counter-culture piece, at a time (and in a place) in which things seemed to be swinging too far in one direction for much of the country’s tastes.  Debauchery, criminality, and a justice system that seemed to be realigning to help criminals combine to form the backdrop of Harry Callahan’s San Francisco, much darker and more dangerous even than Bullitt‘s San Francisco of just three years prior.

As I said, the plot doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.  The biggest issue is the notion that Scorpio would somehow get off scot free because Callahan beats a confession out of him while frantically searching for a girl who’s been buried alive.  The DA and an appellate judge(!) both conclude that Scorpio has to be set free, even though the girl has been found dead, with the DA admonishing Callahan and saying that he couldn’t even get a conviction “for spitting on the sidewalk” in light of the illegal search and interrogation.

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Untimely Movie Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I was eager to dive into the next film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film CollectionWilly Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, because I hadn’t seen the movie in many years.  In fact, my first exposure to it was in a condensed, film-strip form in elementary school.

You remember those—still photos with audio clips from the film, plus additional narration to tie the summarized snippets together.

When I finally saw the full movie a few years later, I realized that I actually didn’t miss much in terms of major plot points, but that a film strip really drains a lot of the magic out of things like Gene Wilder’s performance as the (clearly insane) Willy Wonka.

This is a weird movie, but much of the weirdness stems from elements of Roald Dahl’s book (he also wrote the screenplay, although parts were rewritten when he missed deadlines, causing Dahl to disown the film).  Among the odd elements are: Continue reading

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